“I don’t want a war,” asserts Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). She stands opposite Erik (Michael Fassbender), hoping to explain what she thinks she’s doing, her determination to kill yet another human, in order to stop what she thinks is happening. Erik suggests an alternative to her perception, namely, “This is war.” Already, ongoing, and apparently forever.
Erik’s version of the world, and specifically the mutants’ place in it, is more or less in accord with the X-Men movies thus far, starting with Bryan Singer’s The X-Men (2000). Humans, perennially afraid of what they see as “different,” can’t seem to help but attack it. The mutants, in turn, must defend themselves, typically with violence to match or best that of their opponents. At the start of X-Men: Days of Future Past, these mutually destructive efforts seem to come to a logical end, as the humans have captured and rejiggered Mystique’s own particular power, shapeshifting, using her DNA to build robots that can turn any mutant’s power back against itself.
These robots are called Sentinels, somewhat ironically, and as the new film begins, they’re engaged in what appear to be ultimate acts of war against a sub-group of X-Men, who scramble and resist within a walled fortress-sort-of-space, doing their best to avoid extinction by robots that essentially use their own powers against them. Barely escaping this attack, the mutants — including Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and Bishop (Omar Sy) — regroup and come up with a plan to change their present dire circumstance.
As their film’s title suggests, this plan has them trying to change the past, specifically by sending Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) (or more precisely, his consciousness) back in time to 1973, when the Sentinels are conceived and then constructed by one especially fearful and ingenious human adversary, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). They sort out that the way to stop the Sentinels is to stop Mystique, who, in 1973 (specifically, at the Paris Peace Accords) assassinates Trask and thus horrifies and inspires the rest of the US government — headed by none other than Richard Nixon (Mark Camacho) — to proceed with Trask’s not-so-secret program.
If the mutants’ scheme sounds complicated, it’s most obviously a way to remix the franchise’s two casts, the one where Erik is friends-and-then-mortal-enemies with Charles (James McAvoy), and the earlier (but also later) one where Erik is more invested in his identity as the supervillain Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Charles is Professor X (James McAvoy). As Kitty Pryde looks anguished and holds her hands over Wolverine’s temples in the present, his past, still-mightily worked-out body is inhabited by his future consciousness, full of knowledge and experience with the older X-Men, so that he’s able to advise the younger X-Men to do right things and not set themselves on their path to war with humans — and apparently specifically, with Nixon’s humans.
“I know a guy,” he says by way of displaying his storehouse to the somewhat surprised younger Charles and Eric, a guy who turns out to be the teenaged Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters, and grants this sometimes unwieldy lot of exposition a brilliantly entertaining set-piece, as he speeds around a prison chamber to the tune of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” rearranging the weapons wielded by would-be adversaries so as to allow the X-Men’s escape.
Wolverine’s historical knowledge interlaces with yours, as the film uses Nixon in ways both clever and profound. As an historical marker, the 37th US president is perfectly disturbing, an unredeemed emblem of paranoia and fear (despite and because of China and most definitely because of Watergate and Henry Kissinger). That Nixon here is so easily persuaded to take on Trask’s fears and monsters makes him at once individual and representative, as a villain (and something of an entrepreneur) in relation to the X-Men. Like and unlike the mutants, he’ll never be a savior, much as he might try to rewrite history, in this movie and in the nation’s collective memory.
Nixon is of course best remembered for his part in what Joe Haldeman called The Forever War, in his science-fictionalization of the war in Vietnam. Here Nixon by way of Trask articulates that the interests of the military-industrial complex, the necessity and faux rationale of perpetual war-making, of identifying and creating enemies to fight.
Trask’s part in this appears to be simple and philosophical, as he declares his difficult combination of abhorrence and admiration of the mutants, but the film also offers multiple images of the manufacturing, shipping, and promotional process: the Sentinels are as much a way to sell the US (and Trask’s company, its logo everywhere) as it is to protect humans and kill mutants.
That the mutants don’t have an equally powerful idea to sell becomes the overriding lesson of this film. Mystique, being a villain, a woman (mostly and vividly, in her blue bodysuit form) and a literally mutable entity, is something of a perfect vehicle for conveying the complexities of the dilemma, both for humans and mutants, all equally emotionally unstable. As Charles worries over losing her to Erik (in First Class), Erik worries over keeping her, now, presenting her with the question, pointedly, as to whether she’s Charles’ Raven or her own (that is, Erik’s own) Mystique.
As much as she tries not to be either, Mystique is also, always, never quite only herself. She doesn’t want a war, but she embodies one.